Mercy killing a dog hit by a car even while looking into the camera and holding forth on two kinds of pain is such a ridiculous contrivance that it almost works.
“Shhh”, says the man to the dog that is never shown in close-up, “It’s okay.” The way he says “It’s okay” you know that it is precisely the opposite of that. He then sighs and says as if in response to a question by an empathetic television interviewer, “There are two kinds of pain, sort of pain that makes you strong or useless pain, sort of pain that is only suffering.”
Finally, he looks directly into the camera and says with cold self-assurance, I have no patience for useless things.” At that point he begins to choke the unseen canine to death even as he says, “Moments like these require someone who will act and do the unpleasant thing and necessary thing.”
It is because the man happens to be Kevin Spacey, who has a special talent for doing sinister things calmly, that this opening scene of Netflix’s first original series ‘House of Cards’ works to the extent that it does. Spacey has mastered the expression which says, ‘Even though I appear calm and friendly, I am in fact slitting your throat while talking to you.”
I did not realize that Netflix is streaming its first episode free until I clicked on the play button and saw the bar slowly move towards the 56 minute mark. With ‘House of Cards’, a political thriller adapted from the original British production by the same name, Netflix is embarked on a $100 million, 26-episode gamble. Unlike television which serves you one episode at a time in a long tease interrupted by commercials, Netflix has decided to do the unusual thing of offering its paid subscribers all the 13 episodes together.
This is a whole new approach to creating and distributing content which is bound to make the established legacy networks somewhat nervous. Of course, it is early days to say anything definitively about whether this will work as a business model. Netflix’s logic seems to be to expand its paid subscriber base by offering content that they cannot find anywhere else. Equally important is the convenience of watching it all without waiting for the usual gap of one week between episodes on regular television.
Now to the actual series. I am a sucker for political dramas. ‘House of Cards’ features Spacey as a South Carolina Congressman Francis Underwood. He is an unabashed Washington insider power-broking with great relish. He had expected to be nominated secretary of state by the president-elect who instead decides to appoint someone else. This betrayal sets the stage for the 26-episode long act of getting even.
The director of the first two episodes, David Fincher has Spacey frequently address the audience directly, mostly to communicate his real intentions or motives behind whatever it is that is doing or saying at that particular moment. Spacey wears both his suits and air of condescension with great élan, egged on by his ambitious wife Claire (Robin Wright) who runs a clean water non-profit group but whose ambitions are less than clean.
The first episode, which is the only one I have seen because I am no longer a Netflix subscriber, has all the promise of a compelling political thriller. Spacey owns the television screen which sometimes seems too small to contain him. As the House Majority Whip, it is also his job to whip his flock into voting in a certain way. He realizes that he can use his position to obstruct the president-elect’s agenda in a subtle, insidious manner.
The series introduces a character of a young and driven reporter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, working for The Washington Herald. Bored with her beat of municipal reporting she comes up with a plan to become a willing political plant. Underwood and Barnes establish a mutually beneficial relationship in the very first episode when the former leaks to her the draft of an education bill which the Congressman decides to scrap even though it is by someone the president trusts. Barnes wants to be an insider inside an insider like Underwood’s world.
The first episode has all the signs of Underwood’s long-term objective of someday becoming president himself. Or at least that would be the logical arc of the series. Personally, if I were the writer I would keep bringing Underwood tantalizingly close to presidency and then either deprive him or pull him back.
‘House of Cards’ has all the gloss and finesse of a well-funded series as well as credible performances. However, the writing is rather pedestrian. If you have an actor of Spacey’s caliber frequently address the audience, the least you could do is to give him some memorable lines. “There are two kinds of pain..” Realy?!
To be sure, there is some effort being put into writing compelling lines. For instance, when Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffery), the president’s confidante, tells Underwood that he would not be nominated for secretary of state.
Linda: “I know he made you a promise but circumstances have changed.”
Underwood: “The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”
While Underwood has important decisions to make about his career ahead, I have to decide whether I will subscribe to Netflix purely to finish watching all the 13 episodes. I used to be a Netflix subscriber but gave up considering the surfeit of content on the net. ‘House of Cards’ may just sway me towards becoming a subscriber once more.
Watching the first episode I felt the series is like a steak sizzling on a low fire. Being a painful vegetarian I have no clue what steak tastes like but I know what it looks like sizzling on a low fire. I don’t have to eat it, just watch it.